March 16, 2004
Posters from the Northern Ireland conflict on display at Hoover Institution
By Lisa Trei
The story of the bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland is told visually through a powerful exhibit that opened Tuesday at the Hoover Institution. Troubled Images: Posters and Images of the Northern Ireland Conflict will be on display through April 17 as part of the show's only West Coast stop during a two-year North American tour.
The posters are part of the Northern Ireland Political Collection in Belfast's Linen Hall, a library located not far from the city's divided neighborhoods. Artifacts from across the political spectrum have been gathered by the library since 1968 to form the most comprehensive archive of the traumatic events known as the "Troubles."
"In many ways, the international media has created what the world thinks of Northern Ireland," said Cissie Hill, the Hoover Institution's exhibits coordinator. "It has a definite point of view. You don't hear from the many voices that are part of this tragedy. What this exhibit does is show you the range of political opinions."
John Gray, Linen Hall's librarian, said the exhibit was initially created for the residents of Belfast in 2001 as a way to promote dialogue. "Our first intention was to open doors to understanding in an accessible way for our own community," he stated. "In doing so we are also suggesting a way of acting that may have a wider international resonance. After more than 30 years of conflict, we need to lift the blanket of silence."
The Troubled Images project, which includes an extensive catalog and a CD-ROM, won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prize in 2003 for promoting peace and reconciliation in Ireland. The annual prize was established by the widow of Ewart-Biggs, the British ambassador to Ireland who was murdered by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1976.
The exhibit makes possible what would be inconceivable in real life: posters from all the parties to the conflict placed next to one another. The overall effect underscores both the tragedy and hope in a 35-year-long conflict that has killed more than 3,000 people, most of them civilians, Hill said.
An introduction to the exhibit explains: "This is art of a particular kind ? the images presented in these posters are of a political, though not necessarily party political, nature. They were designed to convey a message ? to make the observer think, and often to inspire them to a course of action. ... Inevitably, some of the posters reflect the violence associated with the Troubles."
A visitor to the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion is greeted by a crude fluorescent orange and black poster of the Rev. Ian Paisley, the radical leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, with the slogan, "For God and Ulster." Nearby, a photograph of Betty Williams of the anti-war group Peace People shouts, "Stop the War!" In 1976, Williams and Mairead Corrigan, co-founders of the group, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet another exhibit case features a gruesome image of a burned body accompanied by the words, "Murder, Murder..." The poster was made in response to a 1978 hotel fire bombing by the IRA that killed 12 people.
The Northern Ireland Political Collection began in 1968 when Linen Hall's then-chief librarian, Jimmy Vitty, was handed a civil rights leaflet in a pub in Belfast, Hill said. He kept it and decided to collect more. Volunteers from the library staff were sent into the barricaded parts of the city, both unionist and nationalist, and instructed to bring back all similar material they could find. They returned with pamphlets, leaflets, posters and badges, and the collection was born, Hill said.
Hoover's connection to the Linen Hall Library dates back to 1993, when Yvonne Murphy, who later became the collection's director, visited the institution to learn about its conservation and preservation practices. Hoover owns one of the largest collections of international political posters in the world, and it uses advanced technology for acquisitions, cataloging and conservation of material.
"In many ways, our political collection mirrored what they were doing in Belfast," Hill said. "They were collecting the ephemeral stuff: the posters, the fliers, the things that get cranked out on the home-made presses. [Murphy] wanted to look at how we preserved these."
Murphy, who will be on campus this week, chose Hoover as a venue because her experience at the institution helped inspire the exhibit in the first place, Hill said. "At each stop she hopes that visitors seeing these posters ? some violent, others conciliatory, all emotionally charged ? will think about the nature of the peace process and the language and space necessary for two sides to come together to discuss the issues meaningfully," Hill said.
The exhibit is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.